The cinematic New Year opens with The Favourite, and its formidable ensemble of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Freda Cooper takes a look at some other top ensemble films.
2018 may not have been declared the Year Of The Ensemble, but there were times when it felt like it. Films like Avengers: Infinity War, Ocean’s 8, Widows and, most recently, Roma, were just the tip of the star-studded iceberg. So difficult was it to separate the performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz in The Favourite that the Gotham Awards created an ensemble award just for them. And the Screen Actors Guild nominations for their equivalent accolade created more interest in the titles that had been left off the shortlist than those making the cut. The Favourite was one of them.
Abandoning the conventional structure of a lead character in favour of a group where everybody is at the same level is a hard trick to pull off. They each have their own stories, their own arcs, yet it all has to happen within the time constraints of a feature film. And something in the plot has to link them together. But when it’s done right, it works – and how. While the past twelve months have included some great examples, there are plenty more group performances down the years that have made ensemble films a permanent fixture on the cinematic menu. Here’s just six top team efforts…..
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Among many other things, Avengers: Endgame could be the ensemble movie of all ensemble movies. Infinity War had over 70 characters – no great surprise when the film was the culmination of years of storytelling, which saw a move from separate films about individual Avengers (Iron Man, Thor etc) to the more recent ones which brought the team together. Infinity War was the truest ensemble piece so far: each super hero had their moment in the spotlight, from the original Avengers to the newcomers as well as those which had been, hitherto, of less importance. It made for a perfectly balanced film, both in terms of characters and plot. We have to wait until April to see if the series can pull off the same feat for the second time in Endgame.
This wasn’t just another ‘Hangover’ but with women. Bridesmaids became a massive box office hit, quickly overtaking Sex And The City (2008) as the highest grossing R-rated female comedy of all time at the US box office. Co-writer and star Kristen Wiig admitted when it was released that “We knew we wanted to write a funny ensemble comedy with women” and that’s exactly what happened. But her witty, perceptive script about the maid of honour and a bridesmaid who compete to be the bride’s best friend was just half of the equation. The cast was chosen to perfection, making a star of Melissa McCarthy but also putting her in the seriously talented comic company of Wiig herself, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper. The result was a comedy that paved the way for more female-driven comedies like Ghostbusters (2016) – Wiig again – and the Pitch Perfect trilogy.
The Departed (2006)
Ever “an actor’s director”, Martin Scorsese has always been at home with an ensemble cast, big or small. Think Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull, all titles that figure on favourite lists and have some great performances, both individual and collective. As far as an ensemble cast goes, the one he put together for his Oscar-winner The Departed is pretty much as good as it gets. Nicholson got the showy part, Damon and DiCaprio drove the main storyline, Sheen, Baldwin, and Winstone did a lot with very little and Wahlberg turned in easily his best performance to date. It added up to a superior crime film, one that easily stands repeated watching, even if it isn’t Scorsese at his absolute best.
Hidden Figures (2016)
The hitherto almost unknown story of the African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in NASA’s mission to put a man into space was an unexpected critical and commercial hit. It also gave Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae meaty roles at the head of the cast list as the three “human computers” who were tasked with calculating the launch of astronaut John Glenn into space. While the story of Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae) was the film’s main talking point – and rightly so – the impressive ensemble cast also featured Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali. Putting racial and gender equality in the spotlight, it made for a film that combined the powerful with the crowd-pleasing, one that has proved to be the standard bearer for some of today’s offerings on similar subjects.
Such was Robert Altman’s love affair with the ensemble that a Spirit Award now bears his name. He returned to it repeatedly in the likes of Short Cuts, Nashville, Gosford Park and his swan song, A Prairie Home Companion, all of which had his customary interweaving storylines with a substantial cast to match. But it all started with M*A*S*H, his Korean War satire set in an army hospital. The humour was as sharp as any surgeon’s scalpel, making the most of a series of memorably colourful characters, from the roguishly resourceful Trapper John (Elliott Gould) to the starchy but sexy ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Other class acts, such as Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall, also featured in the line-up. It went on to more than surviving a transfer to television with an almost total cast change and its final episode, aired in 1983, attracted an audience of 106 million in the USA alone.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s breakout movie turned out to be his first dalliance with the ensemble format – the likes of Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds and The Hateful Eight were all to follow – but, while Altman went in for expansive casts, Tarantino kept his lean and small. George Clooney, Samuel L Jackson, and Christopher Walken were all in the running for parts before Tarantino settled on the combination of Keitel, Roth, Madsen et al for what was to become a modern classic. Drawing heavily on the conventions of classical drama, especially plot and character – or, in this case, characters – he created the tautest of movies where each of heist gang had their own story and were all instrumental in driving the plot at a relentless pace. Superb ensemble stuff.
The Favourite is in cinemas on Tuesday, 1 January 2019.